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Sousa Archives Acquires Letritia Kandle’s Small Letar

Letritia Kandle pictured with a National double-neck (top left image) and single-neck (top right image) lap steel guitar, and her National Small Letar (bottom image).

Through a generous financial gift from friends of the Sousa Archives, the Center has been able to purchase Letritia Kandle’s historic “Small Letar.” The Small Letar was built by the National Guitar Company in 1939 as a replacement for her National “Grand Letar” built in 1937, which was acquired by the Center in 2016.  Included with this purchase are additional historic photographs of Kandle performing on the Small Letar, and the original console diagram and string tuning for both of these one-of-kind music instruments.  The addition of this unique instrument helps the Center complete its documentation of one of Chicago’s leading Hawaiian guitarists of the 1930s and 1940s.

Letritia Kandle (1915-2010) — Hawaiian steel-guitarist, music teacher, and director of Chicago’s Plectrophonic Orchestra — was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, as the only daughter of Charles and Alma Kandle.  During the late 1930s, Letritia imagined the creation of an electronic twenty-six string guitar that would use lights to provide a colorful visual display as the instrument was being played.  She also wanted the ability to stand while playing it and have it produce rich mellow tones similar to the Deagan vibraharp that had been developed in Chicago in 1927.  This unique instrument became her Grand Letar.

Letritia premiered her innovative Grand Letar while performing with the Paul Whiteman Band at Chicago’s Drake Hotel in 1937, and the performance was broadcast by WGN Radio throughout the Midwest.  Letritia’s work with National to commercially produce and market the Grand Letar was not successful, but she continued to play the large and heavy instrument for high-profile concerts and local residencies, including a June 1941 guest performance with the Chicago Plectrophonic Orchestra under the direction of Jack Lundin.

The size and weight of the Grand Letar made it difficult to move to the many concerts that Letritia was asked to perform, so in 1939, the National Guitar Company constructed a smaller and more portable electronic steel guitar that did not have internal amplification or lights.  After 1939, the Small Letar was regularly used by Kandle as a replacement for her Grand Letar.  In 1955, she married Walter Lay, a string bass musician with her Plectrophonic Orchestra, and eventually went to work for her father’s company, discontinuing her music career.

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